Once you’ve put in all the preparation required to set up the perfect wine tasting, you’re ready to get to the fun part! Tasting wine involves evaluating three main criteria - appearance, smell, and taste, followed by the task of drawing some conclusions about the wine in question.
If you’re taking part in a WSET class, we recommend taking notes along the way - students generally find their own method of recording and structuring responses. Note taking allows for useful comparisons between wines and is important for revision. Wine buyers, critics, and F&B Managers attending industry tastings rely on their notes when choosing wines to recommend and stock.
Here’s a useful breakdown of what such professionals look for across each of the main areas when tasting wine.
In Part 1 of this guide, we recommended having a piece of white paper handy to help you study the appearance of each wine. Once you look closely, there’s a lot to discover! Hold the glass away from you at an angle of about 45 degrees against your plain white background.
For reds, the colour might be anything from purple through ruby and garnet to tawny, whereas whites can vary from lemon-green through gold to amber.
You might notice that the wine is paler at the rim than at its core - this particularly tends to be the case with older red wines, which can look russet-coloured or brown at the rim.
Each grape variety has a distinct depth of colour and hue, and varying vinification processes will extract different amounts of this colour. Colour is therefore one of the clues to what grape varieties are in the glass, and how the wine has been made.
Other things to look for when studying appearance include clarity (i.e. whether the wine is hazy or clear) and colour intensity, which is usually described as pale, medium or deep. Don’t forget ‘legs’ - the traces left on the glass once you have swirled it around. Lots of legs usually means high alcohol content or residual sugar in a sweet wine. Appearance is also where you’d note any deposits, bubbles or petillance (slight carbonation which gives a subtle spritz).
It’s now time to have a swirl of the wine for a moment before inhaling the aromas. Most tasters consider this the most important stage of the whole process. What you smell will to some extent be unique, as it relies on associations born out of sensory experience.
Identifying faults in wine can be tricky, and WSET courses are very useful forums for this. Faults such as cork taint are pretty uncommon these days, but you might notice excess sulphur dioxide (used as a preservative in cheap white wines), or oxidation which has an unpleasant smell and gives wines a brownish tinge and dull appearance.
When it comes to describing what you smell, take your time. It can be difficult to isolate different elements which make up the overall ‘bouquet’ at first, but gradually you might be able to pick out smells you’re familiar with.
The WSET systematic approach to tasting wine is extremely useful. It helps the taster consider a vast array of aromas, from types of fruit (green, citrus, red, black etc) to things like floral, herbal, herbaceous and spice notes.
There are other things to look out for too, like flint and wet stones (minerality, as we often call it) oak treatment (which can be identified through notes like vanilla, caramel or smoke depending on the type of oak used and length of contact) malolactic fermentation (which is responsible for butter or creamy notes and textures) and yeast (biscuity or toasty aromas).
However, the WSET Wine-Lexicon is just a guide - there are hundreds of different smells which could apply to each and every wine and no ‘right’ answer. In our WSET groups we may reach a consensus on some aromas, but we’re always happy to hear where your synapses take you!
The final sense to be used in wine tasting is taste itself. It’s recommended that you swirl the wine around your mouth, drawing in air through it as you do to accentuate the flavours.
Different parts of the mouth detect different things, which is why moving the wine around is essential. The tip of the tongue senses sweetness, whereas acidity is detected on the edges.
Tannins are registered on the middle of the tongue towards the back. Tannins are a chemical compound found in skins, stalks and pips or grapes, some of which is extracted during red wine vinification. If a wine is high in tannins it will have a drying sensation on the gums.
As you’re tasting, identify the sensations in the different parts of your mouth - it will help you define levels and types of sweetness, acidity and tannins.
Mouthfeel, weight, or body, is another characteristic you’ll need to attempt to define. A wine - for example a Cabernet Sauvignon - which is high in alcohol, tannin, and fruit concentration, will feel much heavier than a Pinot Noir, a thin-skinned grape which produces fruity reds with soft, light tannins.
In terms of the actual flavours you detect, they will probably be similar to those you identified on the nose, perhaps with some added detail. Again, the WSET systematic approach to tasting wine gives a brilliant lexicon to refer to, from cooked red plums to wet leaves, pear drops to caramel!
Quality and level of readiness for drinking (i.e. whether the wine is drinking well, or requires more time in bottle) are the main things to consider here, as well as whether the wine is well-balanced and has a good structure. If you know how much the wine cost, you’ll naturally be considering whether it’s good value, and whether you’d buy it again!
As your wine tasting journey continues, you can have fun guessing what type of wine you’re dealing with (region and grape varieties) during blind tastings, and maybe having a punt at how it was made (length of skin contact, oak treatment etc).
When you’re learning about wine it’s handy to taste ‘typical’ examples of grape varieties and regions to help you identify them in the future, but as time goes on it’s also fun to throw in more unusual variations within a style of wine and try to identify why they’re different - for example due to extreme weather or experimental winemaking techniques.
We hope that above has given you a useful insight into the wine tasting process. It’s a fantastic brain workout! Our educational arm, Cornwall Wine Centre, promises students with a thirst for knowledge a sensory journey, an intellectual workout, and a life-enhancing learning experience. Why not become an alumni?! To find out more, click here.